Stephen Anthony is pictured before a 2011 incident burned his face while being operated on at the VA in Martinsburg, W.Va. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Anthony)
Army Spc. Stephen Anthony was burned after a routine surgery. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Anthony)
These days, former Army Spc. Stephen Anthony sleeps on his sister’s couch, struggling with the depression, nightmares and anger symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The diagnosis is a recent development for the veteran who served in the 1980s, brought on when he awoke on an operating table at the Martinsburg, W.Va., Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Sept. 23, 2011, with his face on fire.
In surgery for knee repair and a routine removal of a facial cyst, Anthony was semisedated when he felt his face growing warm. Fighting off anesthesia-induced grogginess, he opened his eyes to a wall of terrifying flames: High amounts of oxygen built up under surgical draping were ignited by a spark from a cauterizing instrument.
“I reached up, grabbed the sheeting off my face and tore out my tube and there was no one around. They had all ran away,” Anthony said.
Anthony suffered first- and second-degree burns to his face and nose and damage to his teeth. The incident has left him distrustful and bitter toward VA, despondent and suicidal. He took an overdose of Tylenol three months after the incident and was subsequently hospitalized.
After that, he filed a claim for damages and injury with VA and was denied — twice. He filed a $1.4 million lawsuit, and VA said it would pay $40,000. But Anthony declined, saying he now can’t hold a job because of his severe PTSD, which VA has rated at 50 percent disability — still employable in the eyes of VA.
In June, he filed another lawsuit, this one in U.S. District Court in West Virginia, seeking at least $150,000.
His attorney said payment is the least VA can do to make up for its continued refusal to admit its physicians caused his client’s PTSD.
“It’s bad enough that they set his face on fire. But VA makes it seem like there’s been no impact on him because there’s been minimal physical scarring. They’ve been trying to minimize the impact on his mental health,” Stafford, Va., lawyer Anthony Williams said.
Despite his treatment by VA, Anthony continues to receive medical care from VA and the military for service-related conditions. He admits to no longer being a model patient.
“Yes, I’m angry. I have to go back to the people that I perceived hurt me and feel like they don’t give a damn about me,” he said.
Surgical fires are caused when an ignition source — a laser, fiber optic light, cauterizing device or other instrument — ignites a fuel source, such as an alcohol-based skin prep and surgical material in the presence of oxygen, nitrous oxide or even room air.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, between 550 and 650 occur in the U.S. each year.
“Until it happened to me, I didn’t even know there was such a possibility,” Anthony said.
VA did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
According to Williams, VA has missed the deadline to respond to the tort claim and either will need to settle or submit a late filing request to the U.S. District Court for West Virginia’s northern district.
Anthony is hopeful for a settlement.
“I’ve never even gotten an apology,” he said.